Serena Williams won the Sony Open just over a week ago. A couple of days after her win, she went out in straight sets to world ranked no. 78 Jana Cepelova in her opening match on the clay courts of Charleston. Williams’ loss was something of a shock. Williams is the world number one after all. Not to mention a woman about to defend one of the greatest red clay streaks in history.
However, it was also not that much of a shock. She is, after all, Serena Williams, a player who could have become already, aged 32, the greatest player of all time, but who throughout her career has been through ups and downs; ups and downs which will not even out as she ages.
Right now Serena is a few numbers short when it comes to being in the greatest ever debate. That is currently being fought between Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Margaret Court. But while Serena trails them by some numbers to a significant degree, such as weeks at no. 1 and singles titles, she is only one number short in the most important category: slams won. Serena has 17, one short of Evert and Navratilova.
If Serena can grab number 18, she is right in the debate. A lack of records for titles won and weeks at the top can be excused when taking into account the tour is currently the most grueling and competitive it has ever been. Serena has spent long periods, sometimes up to nearly a year, off the tour injured, thus damaging her records, but they are records players cannot hope to chase on the grind that the WTA is now.
The courts have not changed but the amount players are on them has and those courts do not forgive the extra minutes spend pounding them. In the days of Navratilova, Evert and Graf, some early rounds of slams were over in seconds. But, the tour is not like that now. Ask Serena and she will recount what happened the day Virginie Razzano knocked her out of the first round of Roland Garros ’12.
That was the only time Serena has ever gone out in the first round of a slam. But once is enough. Slams are few and far between in a game obsessed by them, and players who aim for greatness have to try and win as many as they can over the course of a career. And Serena has 17 of them. Quite the number considering all those injury time-outs. And she has the longest gap between them, winning the first in 1999, the last in 2013.
That longevity is because while Serena has suffered in the modern game, she has also defined it. There have been few better athletes than Serena. Many of those slams were won at the peaks of her physical powers over a decade ago. Now, as pointed out by Martina Hingis, Serena’s smarter tennis compensates for her previously weighty shots. Shots she might have been wishing for as Cepelova laid into her a couple of days back.
Yet, despite her recent loss, she is still the favorite to get her eighteenth at the French Open. While titles such as The Australian Open have gotten more elusive the last few years as the courts and conditions punish a 32 year old athlete’s legs, the French Open is the perfect place for them, the clay so much softer on the feet. And with Serena’s recent proficiency in movement and point construction on the clay, the chances she can claim a couple more titles there in the course of her career are high.
18 slams and Williams is in the debate, a debate she said last season she was not in. But 18 would get her there. And most likely by then her other numbers, weeks at no. 1 and titles, would have risen, too. If she gets 19, she may even put an end to the argument. 22, equaling Steffi, and she will be the first and last name said when anyone asks who is the greatest female tennis player of all time.
Commentary by Christian Deverille